Rape crisis centers in trouble

The colorful collection of T-shirts is at once inspiring and sobering.

Covering every inch of wall space in a long hallway at the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center, each shirt is the highly personalized handiwork of a victim of rape or sexual assault who’s completed 12 weeks of counseling in the center’s Trauma Recovery Group. Some bear messages of empowerment — “I will not let you turn me inside out.” “I am BULL strong!” — in English or Spanish, while others are covered in hand-drawn hearts or angels that paint a picture of survival.

This is only the most recent batch of shirts; a nearby closet contains hundreds more, each created by someone the center’s previously been able to help by virtue of the fact that it’s always there providing a 24-hour crisis hotline, individual and group therapy, trained advocates to accompany victims to the hospital and a myriad of other critical services for helping those who’ve suffered a sexual assault.

Yet now the center itself is in crisis. Demand for services keep going up (see box), yet its budget is only about half of what it was when executive director Phyllis W. Miller arrived in 2007, and the number of full-time staff has been cut from five to one. Federal, state and local funding has dropped significantly in that time, and a one-time lump sum the center received from a DeKalb County Superior Court discretionary fund in 2005 is nearly all gone.

“We’ve been using those funds as a stopgap,” said Andy Rogers, former chair of the center’s board of directors and now the head of its fund-raising committee. “If we continue using it at our current rate, we’ll be out of money by spring.”

It’s not just in DeKalb, either. Center directors across the state say they’re hard-pressed to keep their facilities operating around-the-clock with their current budgets. Federal and state budgets are partly to blame, they say, but the problem goes deeper than that. A sluggish economy means donors aren’t as generous as they have been in the past.

And there’s always the subject matter. Unlike such onetime squeamish topics as breast cancer and even domestic violence to a certain extent, this one still makes people uncomfortable.

“Even in 2012-2013, there’s still a stigma attached to someone stepping out — female or male — and saying, ‘I’m a victim of sexual violence,’” said Jan Gibbs, executive director of the West Georgia Rape Crisis Center in Carrollton, which serves Carroll, Coweta, Haralson and Heard counties. “I think our state needs to stop and recognize what these rape crisis centers do.”

Four years of budget cuts have left centers hurting, said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a member of the Legislature’s appropriations committee and a social services advocate.

“They’re very vulnerable when the cuts come. There are a lot of people in the state who are understanding that in a very painful way,” she said. “And of lot other people don’t care.”

State officials know clinics are strapped, but say there’s not much they can do.

“I wish there was more wiggle room,” said Katie Jo Ballard, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, which disburses rape crisis funds totaling about $33,000 per clinic. “But we’re being asked to make cuts as well.”

Nationally, there were 83,425 rapes reported last year. That represents 26.8 rapes per 100,000 people. Georgia’s rate is slightly lower than the national average — about 22 rape cases per 100,000 people.

Rape crisis centers need more money to whittle down that average, said Jennifer Bivins, president and CEO of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault. The nonprofit organization, an advocate for 28 rape crisis centers across the state, plans to lobby legislators next year for two bills that would enhance public funding for clinics.

“We’ve got centers on the verge of closing their doors,” Bivins said.

The ripple effects would be felt far beyond those doors, the head of one center warned.

“Our services actually save the county money,” said Ann Burdges, executive director of the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center & Children’s Advocacy Center, which has specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners and an examination room designed for securing forensic evidence. While the well-being of victims is always the center’s primary focus, she added, everyone benefits from this centralized approach, from police and prosecutors to hospitals and insurance companies.

“The cost for rape exams in hospitals are four to five times what they are when we do it here,” said Burdges, who added that the center cuts in half the time it takes to assess a rape victim, saving law enforcement three to four hours.

But like most centers, Gwinnett’s budget and staffing has dropped precipitously in recent years, although it’s expected to provide services on a 24/7 basis. Since 1986, the city of Duluth has rented it a small building near city hall for $1 a year. In 1997, the center completed a capital campaign to expand and improve the onetime three-bedroom house into a facility with rooms for interviews, therapy, legal advocacy and storage of medical equipment and evidence. But Burdges was recently informed that come July 2013, the city needs the property back.

“There are no hard feelings,” Burdges said. “It’s just one more serious consideration we have of how do we sustain service and move forward.”

Nevertheless, failure is not an option, according to the directors. That’s the only immutable consideration at the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center, where executive director Miller says they’ll keep the doors open no matter what. And in Gwinnett, they’re already looking for another location and ways to come up with an additional $140,000 annually to maintain the current level of services.

“How horrific would it be if we had to go to that other place?” Burdges asked passionately. “That place where we could only offer help to rape victims between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday?”

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